Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Scottish Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers

Julian Baggini of the always interesting Butterflies and Wheels website has written a short introduction to an upcoming BBC documentary on the influence of the Scottish Englightenment.

ASKED to guess who said, “It is to Scotland that we must look for our idea of civilisation”, I would assume it was a Scot. Not because the suggestion is absurd, of course, but simply because south of Berwick, Scotland is rarely seen as a paragon of things intellectual and cultural. The person who gave the country this accolade, however, was not Scottish but French: Voltaire. And the provenance of the compliment is apt for, while the Enlightenment is most closely associated with the salons of Paris, Edinburgh has at least an equal claim to be its true capital, and Glasgow was where most of its kings were crowned.

The Enlightenment was supposed to mark humanity’s emergence out of superstition, irrationality and ecclesiastical authority into a brave new world of rationality, progress and freedom. The Scottish Enlightenment, which was at its peak between 1740 and 1800, is an often overlooked high point in the country’s history. Recently, however, much has been done to correct this oversight. Two well-received books – James Buchan’s Capital Of The Mind: How Edinburgh Changed The World and Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention Of The Modern World – have helped revive interest in the era. Now, Andrew Marr is to present Age Of Genius, a BBC4 documentary on some of the key figures, which should go further to restate its importance.

The Scottish Enlightenment was an incredible intellectual flowering. Indeed, although Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot are the figures most closely associated with the Enlightenment, their Scottish counterparts David Hume and Adam Smith arguably left a much deeper and longer-lasting intellectual legacy to the world. The French provided the Enlightenment with style, but it was Scotland that gave it its substance.
What is also overlooked is the influence that the great Scottish Enlightenment philosophers had on the birth of American democracy, something which I've just recently become aware of, myself.

For example, in Antony Flew's How to Think Straight, he makes a passing remark that David Hume was the intellectual father of secular democracy (as practiced in America.) Now, I had always understood that to mean that secular democracy was an outgrowth of the sort of skeptical scientific rationalism that comprised Hume's philosophy, and suspect this is what Flew meant himself, but what I did not realize was that Hume actually had a direct and pervasive influence on the founders.

This came to my attention when I picked up a copy of Gary Wills' Explaining America: The Federalist last week. Every chapter is framed by a quote from Hume, and Wills demonstrates that many of the ideas in the Federalist essays - both from Madison and Hamilton - are direct translations of the political philosophy of Hume. Even the style of the Federalist, says Wills, owes much to Hume.

Wills gives the following quote from Douglas Adair's 1943 doctoral dissertation as an example of the debt that America's intellectual formation owed to the Scottish Enlightenment

At Princeton, at William and Mary, at Pennsylvania, at Yale, at King's, and at Harvard, the young men who rode off to war in 1776 had been trained int he texts of Scottish social science ... Princeton, for example, where nine members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 graduated, was a provincial carbon copy, under President Witherspoon, of Edinburgh ... The great names in this sudden flowering of the Scotch intellect are David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Lord Kames, and Adam Ferguson. Their books formed the core of the moral philosophy course at Princeton, and it was in these works treating of history, ethics, politics, economics, psychology, and jurisprudence, always from the modern and enlightened point of view, that Madiosn received his "very early and strong impressions in favor of Liberty both Civil & Religious."
Wills also notes the influence of Dr. Witherspoon, the Scottish president of Princeton referenced above, who he says:

was probably the most influential teacher in the entire history of American education. His pupils included a president of the United States and a vice-President, twenty-one United States senators and twenty-nine members of the House, twelve state governors, fifty-six state legislators, and thirty-three judges (of whom three sat on the Supreme Court). His students were everywhere in the Revolutionary Army - in the ranks and in command (eleven captains, six majors, four colonels, ten lieutenant colonels). An equally prestigious list could be drawn up of college founders and teachers, Presbyterian ministers and successful authors, trained by him.
I wonder how many people are aware that David Hume should be listed as one of the primary influences on the Founding Fathers?

No comments: